Rights group lashes rebels, government over child soldiers as fighting rages in Sri Lanka
Thu February 21, 2008 11:44 EST .
RAVI NESSMAN - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) An international human rights group called Thursday on the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Sri Lanka - 's Tamil Tiger rebels for using child soldiers. The military, meanwhile, announced that 24 rebels and a soldier were killed in fresh fighting. International rights groups have long criticized the Tamil Tigers and other armed groups in Sri Lanka - for forcibly recruiting children.
The rebels promised earlier to stop using child soldiers and Human Rights Watch said reported cases had dropped significantly, but UNICEF said there were still at least 196 children in the guerrilla force at the end of January.
The Human Rights Watch report also accused the government of ignoring the use of child soldiers by the Karuna group, a former rebel force now allied with the government.
The Tamil Tigers and Karuna group ``continue to use children to fight their battles in clear violation of international law and Security Council resolutions,'' said Jo Becker, Human Rights Watch's child rights advocate.
``The Security Council should punish their brazen violations with concrete action,'' Becker said.
The group called on the U.N. to condemn the government's inaction on the issue and to give the rebels and the Karuna group 30 days to release all child soldiers. If the two groups refuse, the U.N. should impose arms embargoes and travel bans on their leaders and freeze their assets.
Sri Lanka - sent a three-member team to New York to present its case to the U.N. experts meeting Thursday on the problem of child soldiers in Sri Lanka - , said Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe.
``Our position, as far as the government is concerned, has always been a zero tolerance policy on child recruitment,'' Samarasinghe said.
Rebel spokesmen did not answer repeated calls for comment.
The rebels have complained that they were keeping their promises to stop using child soldiers but that a surge in fighting made it impossible for U.N. staff to verify their progress.
Violence has escalated along the front lines of the rebel's de facto state in recent weeks after the government officially pulled out of a 2002 cease-fire deal.
On Thursday, air force jets bombed two rebel positions used to fire artillery at soldiers along northern fronts, the military said in a statement.
The air raids in Mullaitivu and Mannar districts were successful, the statement said without giving more details.
Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said Thursday that 24 rebels and a soldier were killed Wednesday in fresh fighting along several fronts in the north. Added to earlier casualty reports, the new deaths brought the toll from Wednesday to 37 rebels and three soldiers killed.
Independent confirmation was unavailable because journalists are barred from the battle zone.
The two sides routinely exaggerate their enemy's casualties and downplay their own. The Sri Lankan government itself gave vastly different figures on the fighting, with the Defense Ministry reporting on its Web site that 92 rebels were killed Wednesday. Nanayakkara said he was unable to explain the large discrepancy.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said the raging fighting was worsening the country's humanitarian crisis. It urged the international community to recognize that peace efforts had failed and to focus on protecting civilians and strengthening democracy.
The group blamed the rebels for provoking the government into a renewed war two years ago. It accused President Mahinda Rajapaksa of letting nationalist extremists control his government and said the military campaign against the rebels was ``more brutal and indiscriminate'' than it had been during previous rounds of fighting.
The think tank called on the government to protect civilians, allow U.N. human rights monitors into the country and enact reforms to protect the rights of all its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity.
It appealed to the rebels to stop attacking civilians and to drop their demand for an independent state.
Published: Thu Feb 21 22:15:17 EST 2008